USFS 1920


These days when you think fire-spotter, you probably imagine one of those birdcage houses up on stilts with windows on every wall.

When I started we had none of that. You watched from a peak, scanning the valleys for smoke and trying to recall where the lightning struck yesterday or the day before, marking the places on your map. Smoke in the mountains doesn’t look like smoke as much as little puffs of cloud that oughtn’t to be there.

My living quarters were nothing but a tent, and not a sterling example of even that humble domicile, patched and stitched and faded.

As for equipment, I carried an ax, a Barlow knife,  and a carborundum stone to sharpen both. There was a telephone, one of the hand-crank models with wires strung across the treetops down ten miles to the ranger station.

There were no smoke-jumpers, no radios. Just men and mules.


What Pegman Saw


This vignette borrows heavily from Norman Maclean’s USFS 1919: The Ranger, The Cook, And A Hole In The Sky. Maclean, who didn’t start writing until his seventies, achieved minor fame when the University of Chicago Press published his collection A River Runs Through It And Other Stories. Maclean mostly wrote autobiographically, though his non-fiction account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire was published after his death.  




The back door banged. He came in grinning all over his face. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot I’d made this morning. This was the first I’d seen him since he’d gone out to his workshop before dawn. 

“You look pleased with yourself,” I said.

“My best blog post yet. Really let it rip.” He sipped his coffee. “It’s cold.”

“It tends to do that when you let it sit. Third law of thermodynamics. It’s called science.”

“Don’t start with that. I have almost twenty thousand followers today.”

“And I’m sure they all agree with you.”

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Der Junge Gelehrte


Georg was bursting with his news, but kept the letter from America tucked in his pocket.

This must be done properly, he thought, knowing Mother might not be as enthusiastic as she seemed when he’d told her his plans some months before. Father would be indifferent, as he was to everything except Schmutzi, the family dachshund. Father adored the dog, giving it treats from his plate and addressing it with more affection than he did his son, or even his wife.

Georg was so young when his father was called for military service that he retained only vague and shadowy memories of him. The man who returned from war was a stranger, dogged and solitary, prone to long silences occasionally interrupted by bursts of disproportionate anger.

There was always hunger in those days, the long war fought for nothing.

But now Georg would leave them, step into a new life in America.

What Pegman Saw

In 1930, my grandfather George Nordmeyer emigrated from Germany to New Haven, Connecticut. An excellent scholar with high marks, he had applied to Yale University and been accepted with a full scholarship. He told me that when he arrived in New Haven he worked at a butcher shop where he worked on his idiomatic English by untangling such phrases as “keep your eyes peeled” and “you bet!”

A clerical misunderstanding by Yale had made the assumption that his high school diploma was a bachelor’s degree, so he was immediately plunged into graduate school at the age of 18. When he was 22, he earned his Ph.D and began a long career of teaching German literature, first  in West Virginia and then at Yale. In 1962, he became the head of the German department at Hunter College in New York City.

The Angel of the Lord


He could be a right bastard if you stood in his way. Taller than most, but it wasn’t his height, nor his gray beard, nor even his stiff and lordly manner. No, it was them eyes. Never was there eyes like that in a mortal man. What color, you ask? Why, perhaps gray or blue. But the color had nothing to do with what I mean. No, it was the heat from them eyes, white as a forge-fire, quick as lightning. Yes, he carried him a saber and brace of pistols, but it was the eyes was his real weapon.


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In the words of Frederick Douglass, John Brown was “built for times of trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships.” Brown felt a profound and lifelong empathy with the plight of slaves, his views differing gravely from every other white man of his time. Blacks were among his closest friends, and in some respects he felt more comfortable around them than he did around whites.

In October of 1859, Brown led a troop of armed former slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists on a raid of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal. Though they successfully took and briefly held the fort, Brown was captured. He was convicted of treason and hanged, but the raid inflamed white Southern fears of slave rebellions ushered in the American Civil War

If Thy Right Hand Offend Thee


Ras Alula strode between rows of painted warriors as they cheered and thumped their spears against their shields, many of these  bedecked with grisly trophies of the battle.Hands, mostly, though some of the younger men had adopted the American tradition of cutting scalps from the fallen enemy.

Ras Alula did not care what they did afterward. It was the fighting that counted. And they had fought well, despite the hail of bullets and cannon fire.

These Italians were pallid invaders, cowards who scurried behind walls. They were not men.

And now he, Ras Alula Engida, would  chase these vermin to the sea, slaughtering all they captured.

A fast runner now arrived with a message from Emperor Yohannes. Ras broke the seal and read, heart eager.

Who gave you permission to wage a war there? Those soldiers are not yours but mine; I shall cut off your hand. 

The runner, head bowed, awaited the reply.

What Pegman Saw

Following annexations of coastal territories by the Italians which cut off the growing Ethiopian Empire from the sea to East, Emperor Yohannes IV and one of his most trusted lords, Ras Alula, raised enormous armies to combat further Italian incursion.

Ras and around 10,000 of his men attacked a column of 500 Italian regulars who had set out to relieve forces attacked the previous at Fort Saati. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Ethiopians the Italians were routed, losing 23 officers and 407 enlisted men in the process.

But the emperor was displeased, as this battle had taken place without his supervision. Ras was ordered not to finish the job.

It didn’t matter, because  by the end of year 18,000 Italian troops were in Eritrea. Native victories against modern imperialist armies were always pyrric. 

Fireman on the Ninety-Three


First thing the engineer did was grab my arm with his gloved hand, give it a good squeeze. “You sure you up for this, son? That stretch into Shakopee Lakes has a 13% grade, and likely to be drifted up.”

“Don’t you worry.”

“Just remember, I see that gauge drop I won’t be so nice.”

“Don’t worry,” I said again.

That night I worked my shovel fast as I could, jabbed the fire with the clinker rod to break up the dead spots.  That guage stayed steady all the way.

“Not bad,” he said, and bought me a cup of coffee.



When I was eight years old, a man named George Williams came to our school with a book he’d written about his father Buddy, Life on a Locomotive.  Buddy worked on trains his whole life, first as a fireman shoveling coal into the insatiable mouth of the boiler, then as an engineer on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. This visit from the author sparked in me a desire to write, as well as a deep and abiding love for steam trains. I still have his book on my shelf.


Stairway to Heaven


Midway through the second pitch I can tell someting is wrong. He’s hesitating for some reason, hanging on his ice axe longer than necessary.

Maybe this was a bad idea.

We’d climbed together for almost a decade, traveling summers to all the climbing meccas. Joshua Tree, Pinncales, Black Canyon.

When he and his then-girlfriend moved to SLC last fall, I was jacked because we could climb year-round.

But since the breakup he’s been different. Putting on weight, drinking too much, not answering his phone.

I’d gone to his house and pretty much bullied him to coming today, insisting ice climbing was exactly what he needed.

He’d checked three times that we could rappel down from the belay point where I now stand. “Just in case,” he’d joked.

I watch him untie his harness, the slack rope looping down past me.

He leans back and lets the air take him.


What Pegman Saw: Utah

At Shorakapok


Pard was stone dead. I didn’t have time to ponder it.

That red-paint injun grabbed his bloody hair and sliced off the top of his scalp with a long steel blade. I heard of this practice, but this was the first time I seen it with my own eyes.

He turned and clubbed me good across the face, knocking me back into the water. He seized my ankle and started hauling me toward the bank. Once there, he put his knee in my back and lashed up my wrists with a hank of sinew.

All around me I heard shrieks and screams.

These was devils.

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Bleak Days


Gustav walked on, flecks of snow stinging his cheeks like spits of sand, the rhythmic crunch-crunch of his boots accompanying him like a funeral drum.

Your novel, sir, is a mixture of genuine truth and private grouch, Strindberg had told him, but too much of the latter for them to consider publishing it.

What now, he thought?

He pressed his mittens to his face and inhaled, believing he could still detect the faint odor of home, his mother baking Havreflarn in the enamel stove with its neat pyramid of split spruce logs at the ready, his father puffing his pipe and reading his Testament.

Gustav tugged the mitten off with his teeth, shoved his cold-numb hand deep into his pocket to again feel the comforting weight of the three-krona piece. He spied a cafe across the square.

He had his pen and paper, some ink.

He would start again.

Home was where he made it.


What Pegman Saw: Stockholm

Gustaf af Geijerstam (1858–1909) was a Swedish novelist. A friend of August Strindberg, he never achieved the fame or success that many felt was his due. Most of his works were translated into German during his lifetime, and one, Äktenskapets komedi (1898), was reviewed favorable by Rainer Maria Rilke, who remarked that Geijerstam was an author “one must follow attentively from book to book.” 

Bleak Days was the title of one of his early stories. 

Day One


She crouched under the bridge, cold and hungry and scared.

The only bag she’d been able to find was the Pan Am carryon her real dad had brought her as a souvenier, blue and white with a globe. She looked around her bedroom and thought of what she most cared about that would still fit into the bag. The signed Harry Potter book was probably worth money, but it was huge. Her ballerina jewlery box was way too big. Stuffed animals? No. Her journal? Would she ever want to read about that stuff again?

Her stomach growled as she shivered.


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